The Tintinnabuli of Arvo Pärt

On 15 October 2017, Luminous Voices will open its 2017-18 season with four works, one of which is the Berliner Messe by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. Beginning in 1976, some of Arvo Pärt's compositions features a unique style known as tintinnabuli.

Arvo Pärt (courtesy  Orthodox Arts Journal )

Arvo Pärt (courtesy Orthodox Arts Journal)

Tintinnabulation is an area I sometimes wander into when I am searching for answers – in my life, my music, my work. In my dark hours, I have the certain feeling that everything outside this one thing has no meaning. The complex and many-faceted only confuses me, and I must search for unity. What is it, this one thing, and how do I find my way to it? Traces of this perfect thing appear in many guises – and everything that is unimportant falls away.
— Arvo Pärt

Pärt developed tintinnabuli following his own research and experience with chant music. The word tintinnabuli itself derives from the Latin tintinnabulum, which means "bell". The use of tintinnabuli is quite effective with slow and meditative tempo, such as those used in his Berliner Messe.

Tintinnabuli features two musical voices.

  1. An arpeggio of the tonic triad. For example, if the tonic key is C major, the first voice will feature the notes C, E, and G, which make up the tonic triad. The three notes of the triad, according to Pärt, represent the pealing of bells.
  2. A diatonic movement in step-wise motion. For example, if the tonic key is C major, the second voice could include C, D, E and F (if the motion ascends), or C, B, A and G (if the motion descends).

In a four-voice context, listen for how one or two voices will sound only notes of a single triad, while the other voices move in a step-wise fashion. The triad is, in most cases, the tonal center of the piece from which Pärt rarely departs.

DID YOU KNOW... The "Kyrie" movement from Pärt's Berliner Messe is featured on the soundtrack of the hit movie Avengers: Age of Ultron. Listen for it toward the end of the movie, after the death of the character Quiksilver.

The Elora Festival Singers (Noel Edison, conductor) perform the Kyrie movement from Arvo Pärt's Berliner Messe.